Soil. Heaps of it. Bleak, barren, but thankfully non-odorous patches of earth that make a carpet of what was once a pristine wooden platform—that is the first thing that greets you as you enter Ateneo’s Rizal Mini-Theater. This raw visual immediately takes you away from what should have been the safe confines of a campus university into a no man’s land of a poverty-stricken village in Antique.
An equally bare platform sheltered by thin strips of nipa that pass for a roof and walls augment the dreariness of the place. In this dank dwelling, the only other pieces of furniture are a lonely table and a stove that has seen better days.
This whole setting in Tanghalang Ateneo’s production of “Rite of Passage: Sa Pagtubu Kang Tahud” seems to be shrouded in eternal darkness. The gloom never seems to lift from this small hut, or the dismal town surrounding it; it doesn’t seem to matter whether the events taking place happen during the day or in the evening.
Gwyn Guanzon’s production design is more than enough reason for the denizens of this godforsaken town to want to leave it, even if it means (at least for the young lasses) getting an unwanted pregnancy, the one condition that will provoke the town elders to issue banishment. As for the young men, they settle for an unending life cycle of unprofitable farming, nagging wives and children for whom they cannot make a future.
The only form of recreation that can lift their sagging spirits occasionally (aside from sex) is a few hours in the cockfight.
Near the end of the play, which runs less than three hours, director Ron Capinding has the town fenced in by withered bamboo. This village, in short, its lifestyle and the mind-set of its people, has become one huge prison that is hard to break out of. The constrained setting would also provide a pivotal moment for the young protagonist Isoy (Cholo Ledesma), an adolescent trying to make sense of a life saddled with pain, sadness and rejection.
The young boy has had no emotional connection ever since he could remember. In the time-honored tradition of the town, his mother had contrived his pregnancy, earned her banishment, and then left him in the care of his reluctant aunt Manding Susing, a scathing incarnation of responsibility and resentment as played by Frances Makil-Ignacio.
Forced by this aunt to earn his keep by taking care of household chores and deprived of the companionship of his peers, Isoy is castrated emotionally and psychologically. The older girls he has crushes on dismiss him as a kid and turn to more virile men who can impregnate them.
Finally, in a heart-rending showdown where Isoy finally learns the truth about his parentage from his uncle Berning (Capinding, with Teroy Guzman alternating), he appears to have the opportunity at last to make that one authentic human connection he needs—only to be turned down, again in the name of tradition and communal respectability.
“Rite of Passage,” written by Glenn Sevilla Mas, is more than just a typical teenager’s coming-of-age story. It is a quest for survival and sanity when no help is within sight. It is an agonizing education into life’s harsh realities, and a deliberation on whether or not a next step is even possible.
Sevilla Mas’ script, based on a short story by Maria Milagros Geremia Lachica, asks all the hard questions, mixing the timelessness of the topic with the brutal local color that springs from the setting. Yet, despite the innate foreboding that weaves itself effortlessly in the words, the play still crackles with a wry sense of humor, the kind that elicits the resilient grin that substitutes for tears.
Questions remain at the end. Isoy may have found his liberty, but not necessarily his victory. The audience knows that departure has become an imperative when the boy unleashes his frustrations, sexual longing and desire for connection of any kind when he forces that bond on the only creature available in the place. This scene could have been played grotesquely, or as a sensationalistic way to make a point. But it is a tribute to the young actor, guided by Capinding’s direction, that it comes off as a moment of pathos, and a genuine turning point.
The road out of that land of nowhere can still lead to nowhere. No stereotypical applause comes at the ending. The play does not end on a high note, but with a compelling call that invites the audience to accompany Isoy on that journey out of his hell.
Isoy and his family and peers may not have made that connection—but Tanghalang Ateneo’s ensemble of actors and its creative team managed to accomplish that with the audience on the other side of the divide, and in a uniquely disturbing, hard-to-forget way. That alone renders this particular theatrical journey a must-watch.
Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Rite of Passage: Sa Pagtubu Kang Tahud” has closing performances today at the Rizal Mini-Theater, Ateneo de Manila University, Katipunan Road, Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Call Acel Go 0916-4802195, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.tanghalangateneo.org.